Study finds high formaldehyde levels in Monterey County child-care facilities.

Puzzling Facts: Wood-laminate tables like this one may be toddler-friendly in size, but many contain toxic glues that concern health officials.

Kids in daycare use their imaginations to come up with all sorts of dangerous things. They might draw pictures of monsters or pretend the floor is hot lava. But one real danger in child-care facilities – and possibly all indoor spaces – is a bit more molecular. 

A University of California, Berkeley study released in late October found elevated levels of formaldehyde and other contaminants at 35 of 40 child-care centers in Monterey and Alameda counties. The sites are kept confidential, but study lead Asa Bradman says the 20 in Monterey County span from the Salinas Valley to the Peninsula.

Lab tests of air and floor-dust samples show formaldehyde levels exceeding state health guidelines in 87.5 percent of the sites. Bradman says that’s probably consistent with all indoor environments rather than unique to child-care facilities. “In parts of Monterey County where housing quality is not that good, I would guess the air quality in the child-care facility is better than in the home,” he says.

Francine Rodd, executive director of First 5 Monterey County, stresses that young children need the social and emotional exposure provided by daycare centers and preschools. “I really don’t want people to start thinking they should take their children out of child care,” she says.

The elevated formaldehyde levels probably come from the glue in pressboard furniture and laminated wood, the study states. It’s also found in paint, clothing and cosmetics, and is emitted from gas and wood-burning stoves. 

Lead and volatile organic compounds such as chloroform and benzene also exceeded certain health benchmarks in a majority of facilities, but Bradman says the sampling methods don’t allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. Phthalates and perfluorinated compounds were found in most centers, but no health benchmarks have been set. 

“The larger issue of possibly preventable chemical exposures, regardless of any known risk, is raised by the mixture of chemicals present,” Bradman says.

Monterey County Health Officer Lisa Hernandez says formaldehyde, a known lung irritant and carcinogen, is the most clear-cut hazard. “We are continuing to look at these other exposures to find out what are the particular limits of things that are of concern, especially for children,” she says.

Most of the contaminants, however, tested at levels within state and federal standards. The study found no major problems with mold or mildew. 

Bradman, associate director of the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, has a connection with Monterey County as co-founder of The Center for Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, or CHAMACOS, a 13-year study looking at pesticide exposure among families in the rural Salinas Valley. 

The results weren’t much different from one center to the next. One exception is dacthal, a lettuce herbicide that was higher in Salinas Valley centers. And Alameda County sites tended to have more particles related to traffic exhaust.

In 2008, the California Air Resources Board took action to cut formaldehyde emissions from pressed wood under the Toxic Air Contaminants Program. Offending products can still be sold in the regulation’s first phase, but newer low – and no-emission products are being marketed with the label, “CARB Phase 2.” Federal rules modeled on California’s take effect in January 2013. 

A CARB fact sheet suggests child-care facilities can lower their toxic exposures by buying low-formaldehyde products, using range hoods with gas stoves, cleaning frequently with green products and avoiding pesticides.

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